The finish on its walnut case worn thin, the B3 is scratched and nicked and beaten from years of performances. It sits in a room now at Hubbard Pianos in Oxford with a dozen or so other old pianos and organs. One of those is also a Hammond B3, but it doesn’t share its cousin’s pedigree.
A small piece of tape on the back of its speaker cabinet with the words “Al Green. Channel 16” written in black ink is evidence of the kind of musicians this B3 has shared stages with.
And it still sounds good, Hubbard said.
Hubbard rented it out through a Birmingham stage equipment company to musicians and bands including James Brown, Greg Allman, The Beach Boys, Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night. The soul crooner-turned-preacher Al Green’s group played it at one of his many performances at City Stages in Birmingham.
“I never see them, but the instrument has,” Hubbard said of the stars that have sat down to play at his B3.
Hubbard showed a newspaper clipping of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Greg Allman playing it at a 1994 show in Birmingham. Along with the clipping, he keeps a handwritten set-list of songs that Allman played that night. He’d found the slip of paper in the bench after the B3 came home from the road.
And as can happen to rock stars in their twilight years, his B3 doesn’t see the spotlight as much as it once did. That may be because those bands simply aren’t touring as much as they used to, Hubbard speculates, but the music a B3 makes — breathy, rich tones that can sound soothing and harsh and everything in between — is still highly coveted by players.
Myrtice Collins, director of the Jacksonville State University gospel choir, has used Hubbard’s B3 in every fall and spring performance for the last several years. The next is scheduled for April 14.
“It’s a very popular instrument, and is used quite heavily in the big churches,” Collins said. “Most of the African-American churches have the Hammond B3. We prefer that sound with gospel music.”
In college, Collins sang with a group called Mother Earth, and did some backup singing for acts including Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Marvin Gaye.
“The same music you hear in the church, you’d hear in the nightclub,” Collins said. “You’ve got the people that play in the bands on the weekend, and play in church on Sunday mornings.”
And like so many great musicians, Hubbard’s B3 got its start in gospel music.
Hubbard bought it in the early 1980s from a tent-revival outfit in Tennessee, where night after night it cranked out traditional gospel songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” as the traveling preacher tried to whip the gathered crowd into a frenzy.
That may not be so different from what rock musician Buddy Miles tried to do to concertgoers throughout his career. Miles, best known as a member of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, was a drummer, but could play several instruments.
Wynn Christian, lead singer of the Alabama soul and blues band Spoonful James, recalled in 2000 watching Miles sit down at Hubbard’s B3 in a recording studio in Decatur. Miles drummed on the track “Take it off him, put it on me” on the band’s 2001 album “Seven Mile Breakdown.”
“He sat down at that organ and started an old song called ‘Steal Away’ that Etta James did,” Christian recalled. “Just to be able to sit there and watch this guy, that’s so full of music, just sit down and wail … it was pretty impressive.”
The 60-year-old session player and solo artist died in 2008 of heart disease.
Christian’s band often travels with a B3, albeit one of the new, lightweight copies that use computer chips instead of tonewheel generators — the complicated mechanical device in a B3 that uses grooved wheels and magnetic pickups to give the organ its distinctive sound. A real Hammond B3 with pedal board and bench is 420 pounds of wood, wire and keys.
“You know you’re committed to having a B3 in your sound when you can carry one up a flight of stairs,” Christian said.
Why all the fuss, when today’s digital keyboards are capable of making sounds nearly exactly like a Hammond B3? Because the real thing’s got soul, musicians say.
“How do you define soulful? I don’t really know, but anything that I think of that really has soul, a B3 is usually not too far behind it,” Christian said. “The sound of a B3 in a room, when it hits those midrange to low tones, it’s instantly recognizable, and it can’t be substituted.”
A Hammond B3 was used by Ray Manzarek on The Doors’ songs “Wild Child” and “The Changeling”. Booker T and the MG’s made what many call the instrument’s anthem when they recorded 1962’s “Green Onions.” Jazz great Jimmy Smith played the B3 exclusively until his death in 2005.
Many have been altered over the years, Hubbard said, but not his B3. It sounds just like it did when it came off the factory floor in Chicago, he said.
More than 275,000 B3 models were made from 1954 until 1975, when Hammond ceased making the complicated and cumbersome tonewheel generators. Hammond began making fully-electric organs thereafter.
“As bad as it looks, it hasn’t been altered. We keep it the way it is, and that’s what everybody’s looking for,” Hubbard said.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.